Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Movie Review: Restrepo

Restrepo *** ½
Directed By:
Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger.

Restrepo is a documentary about one company of men stationed in the Korangel Valley in Afghanistan (described as the deadliest place on the planet) for 15 long months. They take fire pretty much every day – most times multiple times a day – and are under constant threat of death. They never really see the enemy up close. They could be hiding anywhere in the mountains – they move freely throughout, and the men of this company are confined to their bases trying to fight back. They try to win the hearts and minds of the civilians in the valley – but they don’t really seem interested. They hold weekly meetings with them, and they seem more concerned about a cow that wandered off and got caught in razor wire, and what their compensation is going to be. They don’t understand why a local man was arrested – even after the Americans explain to them that there is video of the man decapitating prisoners. Their hearts and minds will never be won.

Watching Restrepo, your respect for the soldiers grows deeper and deeper as it goes along. 15 months deployed to a foreign country is a long time. 15 months in Afghanistan, that is boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, and where you are shot at pretty much every day, can be damned near impossible. If the soldiers didn’t bond it probably would be impossible. That is why every time one of their own is killed, it hits them so hard. One of the outposts they set up is named Restrepo, after one of their fallen brothers. When a company close to them suffers massive losses, the troops are pretty much speechless, locked in their own depression and hopelessness.

Restrepo is not a political film because it details the lives of these soldiers, who don’t much seem to care about politics. There is no talk of George W. Bush, the War on Terror or even 9/11. These thoughts are beyond the men, because they are not their immediate concern. They are concerned with getting through these 15 months – and trying to get their fellow soldiers through as well.

The film has been compared to The Hurt Locker, and it also reminded me of Oliver Stone’s Platoon. In both of those movies, the enemy remains hazy – something off in the distance that we can never really see or get a handle on. If it’s odd to compare a documentary to two feature films, it makes sense when you consider what directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger went through the make the film – they stayed out there with the men for weeks at a time during these 15 months, and shot their lives. They put themselves into the type of dangerous situations that most filmmakers never would dream of. That is why it resembles those features more than other docs – because there have only been a few documentaries ever that dared to do this.

Restrepo can be a hard film to watch – not just because you start to feel for the soldiers, get to know them and care about them, but also the grinding conditions its depicts. There are interviews with many of the soldiers after the tour was over, and they sound rather blank about their time there. They are not reliving happy memories to be sure, but they are not depressed over it either – the lucky ones have found a way to compartmentalize what they went through.

Restrepo serves as a reminder to all of us of how lucky we are that there are men out there (and I don’t mean to sound sexist, but there were no women in this company) who willingly sign up and go off to war, enduring the types of things they do for the sake of our freedom. Whether you are for the war, or against it (and I am against it), you cannot possibly question these men’s bravery or sacrifice.

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